Guillaume Lerou never made it back from the war. The letter announcing his death arrived on a sunday afternoon in April of 1918, one of those warm,pleasant April days which feel more like June.
Maude would have laughed at anyone would said that Sundays were supposed to be a day of rest, they rarely were for her. Her struggles began at the crack of dawn, when she had to get Augustin and Léon, and herself, ready for church. It was a herculean effort to hold two, squirming, little bodies still while trying to wash two little faces and necks and comb two little heads of hair, Augustin’s thick curls being particularly difficult, all without soiling her sunday dress. Once she had gotten them looking presentable, then she have to get them to behave during mass, by promising to take them to the soda fountain after dinner, and make sure they stay neat and tidy. Both fights would be futile, since little boys are hardly ever keen on getting up early, sitting still, and keeping their good clothes clean.
When the Duprès family arrived at church, they found themselves once again at the center of neighborhood gossip. Soon after Augustin had arrived, it had spread around that they were looking after a child, her brother’s illegitimate son. Guillaume had always been wild but they never expected that he would get some casbah slut pregnant.
“So that’s the brat Maude and Gérard took in.”
“Her brother Guillaume’s bastard.”
“What happened to his mother?”
“Didn’t you hear? His mother and grandmother died from a fever they caught while nursing him back to health.”
“Strange they brought him here, was he even baptised a christian?”
Maude ushered Augustin towards their pew before he could hear what they were saying. But Augustin turned around, clenched his hand into a fist and thrust it upward at them.
“That ugly little monkey.”
Augustin did not know what the world bastard meant but he could tell that it was not something nice.
Maude found the letter informing her of her brother’s death in the mailbox when she arrived home. She burst into tears and nearly fainted when she read the news.
“Maude, Maude, what’s the matter?” Gérard asked.
He went over to his wife’s side and she whispered into his ears.
“Augustin,” Maude said between sobs, “Can you come here please?”
Augustin got up from where he was playing on the floor with Asaad. Maude picked him up and placed him on her lap. She held him and cried.
Gérard then took the boys out for rootbeer floats. Over his float, Augustin asked his uncle why Tante Maude had been crying. Telling a five year old boy that his father was dead was not an easy thing for Gérard to do, but he figured that Augustin understood death better than a child his age should and would comprehend what he was trying to say. Augustin was silent and sullen for the rest of their excursion to the soda fountain. Maude later found him crying in the bedroom he shared with Léon.
“The strangest thing happened when I was putting the boys to bed,” Maude said to her husband as they were getting ready to go to sleep, “Augustin asked me what a bastard was and I asked him where he heard that word. He told me that he heard people say it at church.”
“Imagine a child learning such language at church,” Gérard responded.
“I told him that a bastard was someone whose parents weren’t married and that it was a mean word that mean people used to be hurtful. It’s good that he and Léon learned what it meant from me before they heard it from someone else. You know how other children parrot things they hear their parents say.”
“So I guess we’re now responsible for young Augustin.”
“So it would seem.”
Gérard Duprès soon followed his brother-in-law in 1920, after a robbery at a garage made him a fatality. Maude, his bereaved widow, moved the family to a smaller, cheaper flat above a creamery, and sugar cookies and trips to the soda fountain became rarer occurrences. Before her marriage, Maude had worked as a lady’s maid and had become skilled in hairdressing, so she found work in a hair salon, styling the bobs and arranging the fingerwaves and pincurls of wealthier women.
Most people in her position might have resented having Augustin left on their hands, but she grew to love him as much as if he had been her own, though he was looked at as a sort of pariah by everyone around them. The neighborhood children were warned by their parents not to play with him, which only made him a more attractive playmate. He grew up knowing that he was different from them, even from Léon, his closest friend. It was always made abundantly clear why, when the words “bastard” and “halfbreed” were hurled at him.
The person Augustin was growing up to be was restless and irreverent, with a strong dislike of having to sit still and be told what to do. He looked at everything in his world, school where he had to behave and do things he did not want to do, the neighbors who whispered the words “bastard” and “halfbreed” and avoid him as if he smelt bad or was diseased, even the tiny flat he called home, with an inward sneer. Augustin was training himself not to care what people thought of him; if he did not care what they thought, they could not hurt him. His attitude towards life was that since people were going to look down on him no matter what he did, he might as well do whatever he wanted.
The flat they lived in was made up of one large room which served as a combination living room, dining room, and kitchen, and two small bedrooms, one for Maude and one for Augustin and Léon. There was one water closet and washroom for them and all the other people on the floor.
The building always reeked of spoiled milk.
The landlady was a woman named Madame Villon, whose husband, Pére Villon, ran the creamery below. Augustin and Léon liked Pére Villon a lot, because he would sometimes give them a handful of sous to run errands for him or do little jobs around the shop. Sometimes he would give them pieces of cheese or spoonfuls of whipped cream. Madame Villon was a friend of Maude’s and would often come over for coffee, with her old black tabby cat François at her heals.
Augustin always hated François the cat, especially his green eyes. François would sometimes appear in the dark hallway, his green eyes glowing, when Augustin went to use the water closet at night and would hiss at him. Augustin would turn the other way because Grande-Mère Margot told him that it was bad luck for a black cat to cross his path.
On an April afternoon in 1925, Maude was peeling some potatoes to make pommes au gratin for dinner when there was a knock at the door. She went to answer the door and found Madame Villon standing in front of her, holding a dead cat with its head smashed in.
“Those damned boys of yours,” Madame Villon howled, “I hope they know how to catch mice. François had a fall from the roof and I saw them up there.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting that they knocked him off the roof,” Maude answered, “They would never do a thing like that.”
Madame Villon groaned and shrugged her shoulders as if it was useless to try to defend the perpetrators, and then closed the door on Maude.
A while later, the “damned boys” in question returned from their play. Léon was now ten, a slight, delicate looking boy with Maude’s brown hair and hazel eyes. Augustin, who was twelve, stood slightly in front of Léon with the gawky gait and surly expression particular to adolescent boys. There was a look in his green eyes, which were partially obscured by his mop of dark curls, that told Maude that he knew he was in trouble.
“Madame Villon came to see me earlier,” Maude said, addressing Augustin whom she knew was likely the ringleader in whatever had happened, “She said that François fell off the roof and that you two were up there.”
“Yes, we were up there,” Augustin responded, “Léon and I were throwing rocks.”
Léon nodded to verify the fact and added “You know how François likes to climb up there.”
“He was walking along the edge of the roof and I guess some of the rocks we threw must have hit him. Damn stupid cat, he didn’t know to get out of the way.”
Augustin’s admission of guilt was basically “Yeah, I did it, so what,” and Maude wanted to slap his smart-mouthed little face but knew that it would not do any good.
“We didn’t mean to knock François over,” Léon cried, “Honestly, Maman.”
“Both of you will go to bed without supper,” was all Maude could say.
It was at this point that Augustin started stealing. He started off taking fruit and pastries from shops whenever he was hungry. This was when the temptation was too strong; these things looked so tantalizing and his belly was so empty. He would wait for when no one was looking and then dash off before he could be seen. After a brief moment of satisfaction, he would feel so terrible that he would do something kind to try to make up for it, such as offer to sweep the floor Père Villon’s shop, or run errands for the old widow who lived on the top floor or help her down the stairs, or put all of his pocket money into the collection plate at church. The few times when Augustin could forget about his sins was when he went to the picture show with Léon and could live through one of the leading men on screen, such as Douglas Fairbanks. He could imagine that he was dashing and heroic and not someone who did stupid things because he was not smart enough to control himself.
Most boys of Augustin’s age could could get into mischief but he seemed particularly prone to trouble, usually getting Léon involved in things such as sneaking into the cinema without paying. The manager had to tell Maude that he would get the police involved if she did not get them to stop. The neighbors said to themselves, “Poor Maude, having to raise that bastard brat. If any boy will go bad, he will.”
Augustin and Léon were walking by a baker’s shop on the Rue St. Denis when they saw the bicycle. It’s blood red finish had been freshly polished and it shone in the early summer sunlight. There was a basket strapped to the back painted in green with the shop’s name for delivering bread. Both of the boys stopped to admire it. Léon stroked the finish and Augustin grabbed one of the handles. He swung his leg over it, sat down on the seat, and began to pedal down the street at full speed.
“Augustin, Augustin,” Léon shouted, “What are you doing?”
Later that afternoon, Maude heard a loud knock on her door and opened it to find Desmarais, an officer from the nearby commissariat, holding Augustin and Léon by their collars. He pushed Augustin forward, who had a defiant look on his face. Maude went pale.
“I caught this little punk walking off with a bicycle belong to the bakery down the street,” Desmarais said, “This is not the first time we’ve heard complaints about him. If we hear about him again, we’re going to have to take him in.”
“He’s only twelve,” Maude responded, “You cannot put him in jail.”
“I can take him to juvenile hall.”
Desmarais let go of the boys, saluted to Maude, and the left.
Maude looked up at a framed photograph of Guillaume on the mantelpiece and began to sob.